Nothing PM says can be relied upon as fact and ministers fear looking foolish by defending her
There was one minister at least who was delighted by the Speaker’s surprise declaration that the government would not be able to bring a third meaningful vote unless the motion was substantially different from the one that had been heavily defeated on two previous occasions. Step forward Kwasi Kwarteng, the most junior member of the Brexit department. A man whose sole function is to know even less than Steve Barclay and Robin Walker, his more senior ministers. A job he does with commendable diligence, as the receptionist at the Brexit department is more clued up than he is. But even Kwarteng must have realised something was up and that he had been handed a hospital pass when Barclay and Walker hurriedly remembered subsequent engagements and left him to answer an urgent question on the government’s proposals for an extension to article 50. Justine Greening began the evisceration with a devastating takedown of the prime minister’s evasiveness that culminated in the observation that his boss was hardly the right person to lead the negotiations as, after closing the debate for the government the previous week, he had promptly voted against himself. After that, it was just a pile-on from all sides, with MPs openly wondering if he agreed with what he was saying from the dispatch box, and Kwarteng literally had no answers to anything. His best explanation for Barclay’s errant voting habits was that it was such an easy mistake he had made it himself. The nadir came when he said “the government will lie …” I think he meant to say “lay”, but never underestimate the power of the Freudian slip. However, because of John Bercow’s intervention, Kwarteng’s humiliation escaped almost unnoticed. Something I am now happy to rectify.
The latest rankings of the World Happiness Report are published, with Finland coming out on top for the second year running. A stunning achievement, though one that makes me relieved not to be Finnish. Imagine the pressure of having to be happy in order to complete a historic hat-trick next year. And what if you were the miserable bastard solely responsible for relegating your country down to second place? Surprisingly, the UK finds itself in 15th place, behind Costa Rica but ahead of the US, up four places on last year. Just who are all these people in the UK who are happier now than they were this time last year? I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t feel more depressed about the country’s lack of government and long-term prospects than they did 12 months ago. Then I don’t know any hedge fund managers who have made a killing over the uncertainty of Brexit. It’s also possible, suppose, that everyone in the UK has become less happy and that our rise up the league table is entirely due to other countries becoming more depressed at a faster rate than us. And there was I imagining that, at the very least, the complete mess Theresa May has got the UK into must be providing some entertainment for the rest of the world. South Sudan comes bottom of the 156-country index – hardly surprising given its civil war, corruption and food shortages – but it was a turn-up to find Japan and South Korea languishing firmly in mid-table. Behind even Saudi Arabia, which came in at 28. I guess, though, that all the people who are executed in Saudi each year – not to mention women – don’t get a chance to register their unhappiness.
It was November 2016 when I first called the prime minister the Maybot. The name came to me when I was watching May give an interview to Sky News during a trip to India – remember the days when India was going to replace the EU as our largest trading partner? – and I realised that far from being an Iron Lady 2.0, she more resembled a broken 1980s computer, incapable of saying anything more meaningful than she was “determined to be determined” and “Brexit means Brexit”. The name stuck and come the 2017 general election, almost everyone was calling her the Maybot. Even her cabinet colleagues. But in recent weeks, the Maybot has finally rendered herself obsolete. She can now not even utter sentences that are grammatically correct, let alone have meaning, and her memory board is so shot to pieces she contradicts herself on a daily basis. Nothing she says can now be relied upon as fact. She promises one thing one day, and another the next. Ministers are now terrified of going on radio or TV to defend her for fear of looking ridiculous themselves: an important consideration when most are openly positioning themselves to take her job. The prime minister has little authority in the country and even less in the Conservative party. Maybot has morphed into Leader in Name Only. Or Lino. Something hard to nail down, but easy to walk over. Pleasingly, Lino appears to have had instant traction outside my own sketches. The other day, Fiona Bruce referred to May as Lino on Question Time. My week was made.
For more than 12 hours I, along with other London lobby reporters and the UK media based in Brussels, were holed up in a windowless, fetid side-room of the European commission building trying to work out just what the hell was going on. So – it turned out – were the 27 EU leaders. With her characteristic mixture of easygoing charm and clarity, May had spent 90 minutes talking to the European council but had ended up saying virtually nothing. Every time she was asked to explain her preferred options if her deal wasn’t passed, her sentences petered out into an evasive silence. The press conferences announcing an agreement were supposed to take place at 7pm, but were delayed until well after midnight, as the EU took back controlof the Brexit process to allow the UK more time to take back control. Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker appeared to enjoy the irony as much as May missed it. Either 12 April, 22 May or some unspecified date in the future was now the new 29 March. All that was certain was that any 29 March memorabilia to celebrate Brexit day would now have to be pulped. Just as well there is a contingency fund for no deal. But while all this is going on, spare a thought for the Chinese. Brexit was only meant to be a hastily added extra to the main programme of the council, which was scheduled to be the negotiations to discuss the negotiations for a forthcoming EU-China summit. The entire Chinese delegation and more than 60 Chinese hacks, who had flown 5,000 miles for the occasion, were left to mooch around pointlessly and stare at their laptops as their business was rescheduled for half an hour or so the following morning. All of which bodes well for when the UK wants to agree its own trade deal with China.
I can’t help thinking that if Lorraine Kelly’s lawyer had been in charge of the Brexit negotiations, everything would have been done and dusted months ago, with the EU agreeing to refund us our entire budget contributions for the past 40 years. The TV presenter’s lawyer has just successfully clawed back more than £1m in tax and national insurance contributions on the grounds that Kelly is not actually Kelly. The judge accepted the argument that the friendly, chatty, feelgood Kelly most of us see is in fact just a persona for TV. It’s a ruling that could effectively bankrupt the Treasury, because almost everyone I know behaves differently at work. I spend almost every working day trying to convince myself, my colleagues, my bosses and my readers that I am a confident grownup who knows what he is doing, while inside I’m a bit of a wreck, crippled by a sense of failure and convinced I am about to be exposed as a fraud. On many days, it’s a triumph just to get out of bed. Talking of which, two neuroscientists from Cambridge and California have just published a paper in which they argue adulthood actually begins at 30 rather than 18, as it is only then that the brain is fully developed. In my case, 62 is the new 30 as I am still waiting for the moment when I feel like a proper adult. Maybe one day.
Source: The Guardian